A Property Owner’s Rights
In property law, owning something means you can enforce legal rights concerning it. It doesn’t take a property lawyer to identify the basic categories of rights that come with property ownership. If you own property, you have the right to do the following with it:
Exclude others from it
Transfer it to someone else
Possessing property basically means intentionally exercising physical control over it. If you own real property, you have the right to occupy the land and structures on it. Similarly, the right to possess personal property is the right to physically control it. In other words, you can handle it and take it places.
Possession is a basic right of ownership, but it’s also a condition to having certain rights and duties with respect to property. For example, someone who possesses real property for a long period of time and satisfies other requirements obtains ownership of the property even though it wasn’t hers before. This is the doctrine of adverse possession.
Even though possession always means basically the same thing, the required proof of possession varies with different legal rules.
Property has value because the owner can use it somehow. You can use real property all sorts of ways, such as building things on it, keeping personal property on it, and doing whatever it is you do — eating, sleeping, studying. (Maybe that’s all you do lately.) And of course, there are countless types of personal property and countless ways to use it.
Excluding others from your property
You don’t need property law to allow you to possess and use property. Even if property laws didn’t exist, you could still possess and use land and things. The problem is, so could others — and they might want to possess and use the same things you want to possess and use. As a result, the property would be much less useful to you; it might even be useless.
Excluding others is really what makes property property. You generally can keep others off your land. You can keep your things to yourself so they’re available for your own use as you choose. If you can’t generally exclude others from using a thing, it probably shouldn’t be called your property.
And if you can exclude people, you can fairly call it property. Even people’s ideas and personal attributes, such as voices, have been called property because the law has recognized the right to exclude others from using them.
You can exclude others from your property, but you can also choose not to exclude them. If a book is your property, for example, you could let someone else read part of it or the whole thing. You could let someone else read it for a day, a week, or a year. In fact, you could let her possess and use it from now on.
And if you did that, you could also give her the right to exclude others from now on. In short, you could give her your book. This power to give your property rights to others is the right to transfer, which property lawyers sometimes call the right to alienate.
The right to transfer property is so fundamental that courts invalidate some attempts by private contract to restrict the right to transfer. Not only is this right a basic attribute of private dominion over a thing, it’s also important to society because the freedom to transfer is essential to wealth-producing market transactions.